Mike D'Antoni would be a bold and smart hire for the 1-4 Lakers after their surprising dismissal of coach Mike Brown on Friday.
It is a move that would pay off at both ends of the floor. D'Antoni has been telling friends for months that he looks forward to hiring a "defensive coordinator'' in some form (the exact title to be determined) the next time he becomes an NBA coach. In those conversations, D'Antoni has acknowledged that he allowed his prolific gains on offense to define his persona as a coach, creating an impression that he was indifferent to defense -- an impression that he has promised to change with his next head-coaching job.
D'Antoni has long insisted that he has cared about defense, but that he lacked defensive-minded players in Phoenix during the Suns' run of four straight seasons of 54 wins or more through 2007-08. The weakness of players who could excel at both ends of the floor was affirmed when the Suns tried and failed to emphasize defense by hiring Terry Porter to replace D'Antoni. Porter went 28-23 in 2008-09 before the Suns replaced him at midseason with Alvin Gentry, who restored much of D'Antoni's system, guiding the Suns back to a 54-win season on their way to the 2010 Western Conference finals.
If D'Antoni was stubborn in the past about suggestions from management to change his coaching staff, his views have changed. Friends say he will tell his next employer that he will make defense a priority, much as he began to do in New York last season after the Knicks acquired center Tyson Chandler. D'Antoni wound up resigning from the Knicks after 42 games -- roughly two-thirds of the season -- as Chandler went on to be recognized as the NBA Defensive Player of the Year.
This makes D'Antoni the right coach in the Lakers' time of need -- Los Angeles ranks 22nd in points allowed per possession this season and struggled defensively late last season -- even though they would likely have to wait to until next month to bring him on as he recovers from knee-replacement surgery. In the meantime, they could put the ball in Steve Nash's hands (as soon as he recovers from his current shin injury) and liberate him from the Princeton offense. Nash won two MVPs while running D'Antoni's offense in Phoenix, and over the short term he would be able to establish many of its strengths while pushing the ball in transition and running pick-and-rolls with Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard.
It is hard to imagine that any of the Lakers' stars wouldn't welcome the hiring of D'Antoni. He has had a longstanding relationship with Bryant, who grew up in Italy and was a fan of D'Antoni's while he was a star point guard for Milan. There have been times over the years when Bryant has scored a basket against D'Antoni's teams and then spoken phrases in Italian to the coach while running back down the floor. "His Italian is pretty good," D'Antoni has remarked with a wry smile.
Nash would obviously flourish if he were to be reunited with D'Antoni, and Gasol's versatility as a scorer and passer would be engaged by an offense that depends on quick ball movement. But the Laker who might benefit most of all would be Howard, who would be the perfect center for D'Antoni's style of play.
During his years of title contention in Phoenix, D'Antoni struggled to find a big man who could lead on defense while also playing a useful role offensively. In Howard, D'Antoni would have the rim protector he always wanted, and in return for all of his dirty work, Howard would be rewarded with easy dunks in transition as well as the open looks around the basket that made an instant star of Amar'e Stoudemire years ago.
Other candidates for the Lakers' opening include Nate McMillan, Jeff Van Gundy, Jerry Sloan, Brian Shaw and Phil Jackson, any of whom would put the Lakers back in contention. But after making it clear that he wanted to distance the Lakers from Jackson and the triangle offense, it is likely that Jimmy Buss would rather not crawl back to Jackson. The hire that makes the most sense is D'Antoni, who could instantly bring out the ready-made strengths of the Lakers' stars by returning "Showtime" to Los Angeles while also emphasizing the attention to defense that produces championships.